For two decades, proportional representation systems have been at the centre of public debate around electoral reform in British Columbia.
PR can take different forms, but all change how our votes are tallied and allocated to political parties.
The appeal for many proponents is the increased influence of small parties, but PR systems would also expand the role and powers of political parties. Under at least one of the systems on the 2018 referendum ballot, parties appoint a portion of their MLA allotment post-election.
In 2019, the SNC Lavalin scandal has underscored deep issues within our federal party system, and the lessons learned apply equally to our provincial government. At times, it appeared the Liberal party was more concerned with maintaining party discipline than with addressing serious concerns about the foundational democratic principle of separation of the legal and legislative branches.
Concerns about backroom pressure and ethical breaches sparked debate around party politics and whether current structures serve a modern democracy.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister, lifted the curtain slightly on the political backrooms. She showed us how many of the ‘old boy’ structures are still in place despite the Liberal’s public attention to gender and diversity.
Municipal governments are political microcosm’s and can be incubators of political reform.
Some large municipalities have adopted party systems in the face of lengthy candidate lists and voter difficulty figuring out what lurks behind the onslaught of vague, feel-good campaign slogans.
Once upon a time, Maple Ridge had municipal wards (council representatives elected from different geographical areas), but they were abolished in 1947.
The Maple Ridge Non-Partisan Association was formed the same year, perhaps copying the Vancouver NPA, which was established in 1938.
The Maple Ridge NPA was active in one election and then disappeared until 1990, when a group under the NPA banner began acting as a municipal party and running slates of school board and council candidates.
The Maple Ridge Civic Electors was created in the early 1990s with Craig Speirs as chair. The former councillor recalls: “We created the MRCE to compete with the NPA. It was an NDP-affiliated organization and you had to be an NDP member to run under the MRCE banner. We had some success and elected Candace Gordon to council and Judy Dueck to the school board.”
By the end of the 1990s, both the MRCE and the NPA disbanded. Alliances and affiliations continued, but their existence was opaque to most voters.
Registering a local political organization helps improve transparency. Affiliated candidates are indicated by party name on the ballot.
Parties at the federal, provincial and municipal levels also provide useful information about the underlying political philosophies of their candidates.
On the negative side, once elected, politicians at the provincial and federal levels answer to their party first and the voters second, or risk being removed from caucus and thrown into the hinterland of independence.
The latter remains a viable option for local government officials, but independent MPs and MLAs have no access to funding for support staff, and limited opportunities for participation in debates and question period.
Still, it’s possible for independent politicians to make a difference and push the system to improve.
In 1996, Liberal MP John Nunziata was expelled from the federal Liberal caucus when he voted against the government’s budget because it didn’t follow through on a promise to rescind the GST. The following year, voters in his Toronto area riding re-elected him as an independent.
Surrey North MP Chuck Cadman ran and won as an independent in 2004 after serving two terms with the Canadian Alliance. South Delta MLA Vicki Huntington was elected to two terms as an independent.
MLA Daryl Plecas was ousted from the B.C. Liberal caucus when he took the opportunity to step into the speaker role, and thus moved the party into opposition status.
Unfettered by membership in a party and filling a necessary role for the NDP/Green government, Plecas is turning over rocks with abandon and, hopefully, the end result will be an improvement in accountability in Victoria.
Though unable to vote for either of them, I’ll be rooting for the campaigns of Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott this October. As independents with significant experience and insight, they are in a unique position to direct sunshine toward those areas of government and political parties in Ottawa which require the attention of citizens.
Purposeful, well-thought-out reform isn’t just a shot at fracturing the system and hoping what emerges is better. The party system has tentacles that burrow deep into every part of government and is likely here to stay, but it requires reform to ensure public interest – not that of parties – is the primary driver of decisions.
The engines of change are external pressure from voters and a smattering of knowledgeable, principled independent candidates.
Katherine Wagner is a member of the Citizens’ Task Force on
Transparency, a former school trustee and member of
Golden Ears Writers.